Tudor Rebellions

A Tudor World picture?

To fully understand Tudor attitudes to disorder and rebellion from all strata of society we must understand their world view. In 1943, E. M. W. Tillyard published An Elizabethan World Picture, which outlined a set of ideas which he said were essential to understanding the Tudor mind, and consequently the works of Shakespeare or Marlowe. One of these was the Great Chain of Being. An early English political scientist (I use the term loosely), Sir John Fortescue, wrote -

"God created as many different kinds of things as he did creatures, so that there is no creature which does not differ in some respect superior or inferior to all the rest. So that from the highest angel down to the lowest of his kind there is absolutely not found an angel that is not superior or inferior; nor from man down to the meanest worm is there any creature which is not in some respect superior to one creature and inferior to another so that there is nothing which the bond of order does not embrace."

The Great Chain of Being was an unquestioned truism to Tudor society, and throughout the 16th Century it suited Tudor monarches to try and enforce it even further. Together with The Theory of Obligation, it was a powerful tool in keeping the peace. It was believed throughout all estates and orders of society that when the Chain of Being was disturbed, God would cast down his fury until the natural order was restored. And so whilst there was social mobility in Tudor society (the people involved in moving upwards naturally believing they were destined to do so) a villein or peasant would not automatically question his place in the world nor demand more; if he did, God would be angry with him! Thus was humility buried deep in the Tudor psyche, and the lower orders (or even the nobility) would never dare question the Monarchy - their grievences were always addressed to his "evil councillors". Robert Aske wrote in The York Articles during Ket's Rebellion (translated by me into modern English):

"we your subjects think that your Grace takes council from and have at Court men of low birth and small reputation, which have procured profits especially for their own advantage, particularly Lord Cromwell."

Not only were men of low birth in the King's Council an affront to the nobility, they seemed like a disturbance in the natural order to the lower classes as well (Aske was a lawyer and a landowner, but by no means a noble himself). They frequently came under attack from all estates. The growth of social mobility, especially towards the latter half of the 16th century, which was a turbulent time, disturbed the government. They preached obedience and humility from the pulpit, and those who had advanced socially invented pedigrees and coats of arms to disguise their movement. It was unlikely that someone would move from the commons to the gentry, but power was available to gentlemen. A gentleman was defined as someone who did not need to work for his living and could display a standard of living appropriate for his class (this standard fluctuated throughout the century). The commons was regarded as contemptible by all other classes and no publicist had a good word to say about them (even Martin Luther, who the commons of Germany took as a hero of their cause, denounced them in the Peasants' War).

Tudor law enforcement mechanisms

Although denounced, the commons were feared. The government of Tudor England is often referred to as "government by consent". This is because the central authority was unable to control all the people all over the country, and it regarded on the local nobility and gentry to do so, and hence needed their consent. When a popular revolt was going on, the primary aim of the government was to maintain the support of the gentry and incite them to battle the commons. The commons was simply incapable of organizing itself without the help of the upper classes, and the "big" rebellions (The Pilgrimage of Grace, The Revolt of the Northern Earls) were all helped by elements of the upper classes. But in general it was in the interest of the upper classes to maintain order, and so they could be relied upon to do so - after all, it was their wealth that would be destroyed, their power disturbed in the case of a successful rebellion!

The Tudor government had no police force or standing army1. The decline of feudalism meant that he could increasingly not call on the 'feudal host' to rally by his side. Henry VII had passed laws against 'retaining', that is the keeping and uniforming of private, permanent armies by nobles, but they could sometimes still raise the commons when it was necessary. In the North of the country, bastard feudalism allowed the nobles to sometimes raise forces against the Monarch, as in the Revolt of the Northern Earls (but the men in this remote part of the Kingdom "knew no King but a Percy", Percy being the prominent noble family in this part of the country).

Although it had no standing army, the government had representatives in the counties. These were people such as the Justices of the Peace (JPs), Sheriffs and Lord Lieutenents. But these people were more concerned with small-scale law enforcement (and prestige from their titles!) than combatting large-scale sedition and insurrection. There was no real centralized mechanism for dealing with it, yet the Tudors usually managed to dispatch an army under the command of a leading noble to dissipate a rebellion.

Another factor worth mentioning is the use of the Church to inspire obedience in the people. Although it wasn't a "law enforcement mechanism" as such, the government's control of the spiritual domain (especially after the Religious Settlement) allowed them to reinforce the theoretical objections to rebellion that publicists had written about. Rebelling against lawful authority was seen as a rebellion against God, and the government made so the Church preached this.

The causes of rebellion

"The Old Religion lay like lees at the bottom of men's hearts, and when stirred a little rises to the top."

What with the English Reformation, the dissolution of the monasteries, the turn-around of Mary I and then the Religious Settlement, the 16th century was the most turbulent one in English (and probably European) religious history. And such constant and fundamental change to this important factor of people's lives reached into all spheres and aroused many passions. Some rebellions were ostensibly religious (such as The Pilgrimage of Grace), others saw religion could be used as a factor to excite the populace (such as Ket's rebellion). Thomas Cromwell's "Tudor Revolution" went through with remarkably little trouble, but there was some. The symbol of opposition to the reformation was the banner of the Five Wounds of Christ, which was carried in 1536, 1549 and 1569. It isn't really fair to say that English society was wrenched violently from the Old Religion, but the population was definitely bewildered and disconcerted by galloping religious change.

"There is nothing will sooner lead men into sedition than dearth of victual."

The 16th Century was a very turbulent time in economics for England. The Price Revolution was a period of massive inflation that rocked most of Europe. The price of grain increased sevenfold and a period of bad harvests created unrest. As usual men blamed every social class but their own, but among the commons the enclosure movement was universally hated. And as part of a more volatile land market, along with the dissolution of the monasteries, this new dynamic situation could create vagrancy, which the government feared. Large amounts of people wandering the country was strongly frowned upon, and so poor relief was only provided in the parish of people's birth. Publicists blamed the dissolution of the monasteries for poverty because it was perceived that the the charity and almsgiving of the monks was important for looking after the poor. Poverty was particularly a problem when the government needed to tax the populace, because protests and demonstrations against it were common (such as the Cornish tax revolt of 1497 and the Amicable Grant of 1525).

Of all the protests only the Revolt of the Northern Earls was socio-political. Rebellions and uprisings were almost always a local reaction to local affairs without reference to the national situation. Historians have identified two types of rebellions in the Tudor period, and this is the "protest" type. It was often directed against what the local people perceived to be enemies of the state (evil King's councillors, the Spanish, rapacious landlords). These demonstrations were often fairly peaceful (although the Crown's response could be very destructive) and the gentry tended to keep the lower orders in check during them. The other type of insurrection was the "regime change" type which directly challenged the Crown. This was especially a problem for the first Tudor, Henry VII, who faced an army of his own subjects at the Battle of Stoke. This was a remnant of the War of the Roses and afterward Henry established the legitimacy of the Tudor monarchy (although he could never be truly safe until Perkin Warbeck was vanquished). But many of the rebellions put forward alternative claimants to the throne or challenged the succession in one way or another. But the Tudor mindset meant even the rebellions' leaders could not admit this to their own followers.

Was rebellion effective?

In pitched battle with the Crown the rebels were almost always defeated on the field, often with heavy casualties. The rebellion which came closest to overthrowing the regime was Wyatt's, which was eventually only defeated by loyal elements in London. But we shouldn't assume the aim of the rebels was always to defeat the Crown in battle and impose their will in the Clausewitzian sense. It is impossible for us to categorically say that Tudor rebellion failed because every rebellion was not quashed in open battle. Some demonstrably influenced the government, such as resistance to the Amicable Grant. Demonstrations definitely influenced government thinking. The anarchy of 1549, which even involved egalitarianism (a strange concept in these times) raising its head, definitely led to a change in government thinking. This change in thinking did not neccesarily bode well for the populace, however: William Cecil decided instead that more effective government propaganda and a militia system was needed to suppress rebellions.

The commons had no effective way of getting their problems addressed apart from rebellion. Parliament did not represent them effectively and their landlords were more interested in fleecing them. So protests and demonstrations, and the prospect of them, could influence government policy. 'Government by consent' meant the consent of the lower orders as well, at least to some extent, and the English Reformation could not be pushed too hard, too quickly.

Rebellion often failed due to lack of armed proficiency on the part of the insurgents, and the times when they relied on foriegn help to achieve their aims often resulted in their betrayal. Although Henry VII faced rebels with outside support, European heads eventually gave up on intervention in England (the Italian Wars taking up their attention). During later rebellions help simply failed to materialize altogether, perhaps because foreign powers realized the futility of the rebel causes. This lack of outside help made the Tudor regime a lot more stable, and the government could mainly be occupied with its foreign affairs rather than dissent from within towards the end of the Tudor century.


1. A law of King Edward I, the 1285 Statute of Westminster (I) required all able-bodied men aged between 16 and 60 to be trained with weapons, but there wasn't really any trained militia until the latter half of the sixteenth century. The old county fyrd militia had long since disbanded.


Fellows, Nicholas. Disorder and rebellion in Tudor England: Hodder and Stoughton, 2001.

Fletcher, Anthony. Tudor Rebellions 2nd. ed.: Longman, 1973.

Lotherington, John. The Tudor Years: Hodder and Stoughton, 1994.

Pound, John. Poverty and Vagrancy in Tudor England Second Edition: Longman, 1986.

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